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Insects in Art

A study of metamorphosis
Maria Sibylla Merian, <i>Moths, Caterpillar, and Foliage, from Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium</i>, 1705, hand-colored etching and engraving
zoom Maria Sibylla Merian, Moths, Caterpillar, and Foliage, from Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium, 1705, hand-colored etching and engraving


In 1699, Maria Sibylla Merian set out for the exotic tropical country of Suriname, a Dutch colony in South America. For two years she studied Suriname’s insects in their natural habitat. She observed their metamorphosis as they developed from egg to adult. She recorded their eating habits and activities, collected specimens, and drew each stage of their life cycles.

Here you see Merian’s study of the four stages of the White Witch moth’s life. First are the eggs, seen in the yellow egg sack attached to the tree. Caterpillars (the second stage) hatch from the eggs. Merian shows one crawling on a branch and eating the leaves. The caterpillar eats voraciously and then spins a silken cocoon around itself (shown next to the eggs). Now it has entered the third stage, called the pupa. The pupa metamorphoses into an adult moth, which then emerges from the cocoon. Merian painted two moths, one in flight and one resting on a leaf with wings folded to reveal the beautiful lavender coloring.

Merian was known both as an entomologist (a scientist who studies insects) and as one of the finest botanical artists of her time. She was taught by her stepfather, a still-life artist, and was greatly influenced by other seventeenth-century Dutch still-life painters. Like them, she paid close attention to detail. Her drawings and watercolors capture every feature of the insects she studied—the shimmering silkiness of a cocoon, each bristly hair of a caterpillar, the intricate patterns of a moth’s wings.

Merian painted over a hundred watercolors during her time in Suriname. When she returned home, sixty of them were reproduced in her book Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium (Metamorphosis of the Insects of Suriname).

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1. A closer look at the egg and cocoon stages.
2. Merian accurately depicted the segmented body and bristly hairs of the caterpillar.
3. The moth's wings are beautifully patterned.


March 2006